This is an ongoing tale, catch up on the previous installments here. ♦♦♦ Hishine’s clan was shocked when Orsog suggested rescuing their chief’s daughter. They said it was suicide, that nothing could be done, that
This is an ongoing tale, catch up on the previous installments here.
Hishine’s clan was shocked when Orsog suggested rescuing their chief’s daughter. They said it was suicide, that nothing could be done, that the power of the wicked sorcerer and his diabolical servants was beyond anything the foreigner could understand. Perhaps it was true, but Orsog had traveled many lands, had heard many dark tales, and found few of them true. He trusted his strength, his sword, and his cunning. He would not leave the girl to die alone.
And so, at last, the Pale Foxes relented. Hishine himself quieted them and stepped out into the chill night air, into the fierce mountain wind that tore at his clothes and led Orsog to the foot of the bald and blasted mountain himself. Dawn was creeping over a low saddle between two peaks when he turned from the path, slipped behind some juniper bushes into a hidden glade, and turned to the stranger.
“My friend,” Hishine said, a tremor in his voice, “I would have you know, my daughter’s name is Musane.”
Orsog held his peace for a moment. It was customary among the Pale Foxes for women’s true names to be kept secret from strangers until they were wed. Orsog had been in the presence of the chief’s daughter many times, but she was always called “sister” or “cousin” or “aunty.”
“You honor me.”
The chieftain shrugged. “You saved my life. I believe that you will die in this undertaking, and that is an act of high honor. And if you do not, that is worthy of even greater praise. By my counting, you are blood. It is right that you should know her name.”
“My brother, when sunset comes, some of the valley folk will pass this way. They trade in evil things with the sorcerer, to learn his black spellcraft. If you waylay them, and steal their garb, you might be admitted to the castle. That is all the knowledge I can offer you. Now, I must return to my people.”
“Walk safely, brother,” Orsog said. “Do not burn the torches of mourning until the second dawn. If the Lord of Heaven watches, I will return with Musane.”
There was no hope in Hishine’s amber eyes as he departed.
Orsog lay in wait like a panther, crouched in the deepening darkness amidst a thicket which had concealed his form in broad daylight. He had a twinge of guilt, as he always did when he stalked civilized men. Peoples like the San, the valley-folk, prided themselves on driving back tribes like the Pale Foxes. In great numbers, they were surely stronger. But on their own, few civilized men could have matched the so-called wild folk, like Orsog of Ha-Rend, in woodcraft or strength of arms. Fewer indeed could stand before him.
Orsog’s hooded prey made his way up the trail. The valley-dweller’s soft, untutored feet snapped every twig and rattled every stone where he trod. The man panted loudly.
He must be heavy, Orsog judged, by the way he filled out his robes. It was just as well. A thin man’s robe would never slip over Orsog’s broad shoulders.
The ambush was swift. Like a black panther springing from the vine-choked hills of his homeland, Orsog flew from the dark underbrush, wrapping his strong arm around the acolyte’s throat to cut off a half-formed scream. He quickly stabbed the man with the poison needle in his other hand and dragged him off the trail as the paralytic took effect.
Orsog quickly donned the bright red tunic with the high collar. Next was a pair of baggy black trousers. The shoes would not fit, so he tugged the trouser legs down over his boots and hoped for the best. The cloak was voluminous and black, secured by a brooch, a brass dragon eating his own tail. The dragon was shaped in the peculiar fashion of the country, with wide eyes, flowing whiskers, fishlike scales, and flared fingers. It was some sort of insignia.
As the barbarian wound his way further up the mountain, he thought of his homeland. It was as humid here as it was back in Ha-Rend, and the trees were more familiar than in the rolling Asentic plains where he had first tasted civilization’s corruption.
The Pale Foxes with their longhouses and stories by firelight, they were familiar. The way they hunted and foraged, their little gardens, quickly abandoned, and their tendency to move from place to place, all could have been from his childhood. It all felt right, and wholesome. It was the men of great empires who called on dark gods, who chanted from their forbidden books and performed bloody rituals in the hopes of gaining power and glory. Ambition was not itself a civilized thing but it only found certain forms far from the frontier.
Orsog shook himself from his reverie as black towers with shallow-pitched roofs appeared before him. Such roofs made all buildings look squat in this country. This fortress, though, was truly broad and thick-walled. The towers and outbuildings behind crouched under them like bloated toadstools. Two men with spears stood before a gate that opened onto a portcullis. They eyed him as he approached. Orsog stopped in front of them, wordless.
“Go in,” said the guard on the left. “The Master is waiting.”
Orsog nodded, passing between them. He expected some sort of password, and not knowing, was ready to fight his way inside. The lack of challenge made him nervous.
At the far end, he emerged into a well-lit courtyard. Paper lanterns strung from wall to wall and more lit the square balcony on the far side. There were three or four dozen people in dark hoods with dragon brooches, talking in small groups with low whispers. Behind him, the grill clanged shut. A gong sounded. Those who turned to see Orsog as he entered now faced the balcony and arranged themselves in a double line, falling on their faces. Orsog joined them.
The creature that emerged onto the balcony could barely be called human. His arms were longer than any normal man’s and his fingers tipped in curving nails, like milky-white talons. His dark irises were surrounded by the orange-red of a sunset and reminded the barbarian of certain poisonous fruits in the jungles of Da Niat. Worst of all was the great, smooth, bald head perched on the spindly neck, round as an egg. Orsog looked at that catfish-whiskered face, and knew it belonged to a true sorcerer, one who trafficked with dark powers and had been twisted out of the likeness of ordinary humankind.
The bowing ranks thundered out a ritual greeting in San, and Orsog was too distracted to catch its meaning, or to echo it. No one seemed to notice, and the Master raised his clawed hinds to the black sky above and intoned a few words in an unknown speech. He turned his palms towards the assembly and muttered a blessing. A second thunder of response issued from the acolytes, and then the Master turned and hobbled away.
At that moment, Orsog caught a familiar stench. From a door beneath the balcony emerged a thin, shriveled thing. Sparse wisps of hair dotted its pale, gray flesh. Like its master, it had a head too large for its body. The thing had a flat, upturned nose and similarly batlike ears. Its eyes were also large, and a pink tongue licked needle shaped fangs behind thin lips.
There are certain devils, imps from a nearer hell, who find the infernal hierarchy difficult to climb. Such may be summoned with ease by wicked men and willingly bind themselves as servants in exchange for pleasures that may only be obtained in the surface world. Unable to succeed in the world of demonkind, they spread demonic foulness here.
The other acolytes did not react to the monstrous appearance of the creature. It loped down the length of the first row, hissing and croaking orders. In small groups and one by one, the acolytes all departed, attending to various tasks around the castle. Orsog watched as the beast made its way towards him and started to understand the nature of their relationship. Whatever these people gained from the Master, they earned it laboring in a place where few others would willingly serve.
“You,” the creature spat, “You are new here.”
“I am,” Orsog said, his foreign accent unmistakable.
“Very well. You shall come with me to the larder. You shall do common work, and I shall inform you of your other duties.”
Apparently, the demon did not distinguish accents, or did not care to do so. The Rendic barbarian stood and followed the imp into the castle. He reached back to lightly touch the place where his short Asentic sword was concealed.
To Be Continued…
In the Devils in the Jars 3